When Bill Clinton had his affair with Monica Lewinsky in the White House, he did incalculable damage to the nation. Never mind that he was impeached by the House of Representatives, or that he was disbarred, or that the reputation of the Oval Office was tarnished. What was immeasurably worse was what he did to the culture of mainstream America.
Prior to Clinton’s affair, such activity was treated in a hush- hush way by the press as well as by the entertainment industry. Even though other philanderers had occupied the Presidency, there was always a delicate restraint in giving exposure to such issues. With Clinton, it was different. He brought with him a reputation of dalliances with women and when the Lewinsky affair was made public, the restraints were off. The sleazy details were on the news with graphics including a blue dress.
The White House was not only defiled by the activities that went on inside but it lost its symbolism of honor. At the same time, the activities of Clinton legitimized such things in the public mind. If the President did such things, why would the general population restrain themselves? Of course such things have happened among the public. But the damage is how it has been given a veneer of respectability since it has been done openly by a sitting President. Culturally, America lost a collective innocence, or at least a collective reticence to sanction what once was considered wrong.
Why do I bring this up? Because another unspoken taboo is biting the dust. Despite how entertaining and politically incorrect a campaign may be, there has always been an aura about politics that in the open is even child friendly. There is a public persona of decorum that is expected. Speech, though combative and polarizing, has for the most part been free of offensive language. Politicians kept a public image of conversational respectability. That did not necessarily reflect who they really were.
When President Nixon was being investigated for abusing the power of the White House, secret tapes were discovered in the Oval Office. What disturbed my father, a strong Nixon supporter, more than anything else about the whole Watergate investigation were not the actual crimes involved, but the revelation of the tapes that Nixon had a foul mouth. My dad could hardly get his mind around that. He had never noticed any impropriety in Nixon’s public speeches.
There has been a rather universally accepted concept about the polity of words in a campaign. But it is going out the window this election cycle. Trump rallies are not kid friendly. The NY Post headlined Trump’s “tirade of profanity” in a Las Vegas speech. A 2011 YouTube clip shows Trump cursing in a New Hampshire speech.
Recently I heard a clip of one of his speeches when a microphone did not work well. I was disappointed and perhaps a little shocked that he used language never allowed in our home to voice his displeasure. The shock value of the words he used may have connected with the part of his audience who uses the same words in their own conversation, but it disappointed me. The problem is the legitimizing of such words in political public discourse. While Harry Truman had the reputation for being colorful in his language, the main offense was his connection to the word describing eternal punishment. And like other leaders who were heard privately to use bad words, his were not done in public.
Someone who uses bad language may actually propose policies that are good for the nation. Yet the influence of leaders goes beyond their policies. They can set a direction for the culture. The “bully pulpit” of the presidency includes not only their message but also their persons. Bill Clinton helped to mainstream illicit sex in a way that movies, music, and magazines never could. Similarly, mainstreaming vulgar language from the bully pulpit of a presidential campaign can have the effect of lessening public restraint – as if we are not having enough problems with that as it is.
Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things” (Matt. 12:34,35). If what comes out of a man’s mouth is good, it indicates a good man. This can be policy or words. So a man may use words free from vulgarity but that are still evil if they promote evil policies. Or a good man can uprightly commend good policies. But a man who utters vulgarities in defense of virtues is a contradiction. Jesus further said, “By thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words shalt thou be condemned” (v.37).
It is no use professing to have a “great relationship with God” while continuing to use vile language. Paul addressed the Colossians on this issue. “But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth” (Col. 3:8). There is an old saying that the eye is the window to the soul. In this case, the mouth may be considered to be a broadcast of what is recorded in the soul.
Character matters. Those leaders in our history who have been upright in character are heroes. Consider the character qualities of men like Washington and Lincoln. These were men who were careful about their personal lives as well as what they proposed for the nation. These men were uncompromising in their honesty, faithfulness, and honor. When you read their speeches you don’t come away with having had your mind compromised by words only fitting for someone coming from a New York City barroom. Instead, you are challenged to achieve greater things in yourself and in your country.
Some may object that in the light of the big issues in our world a little vulgarity here or there is insignificant. But little things make a big difference. Law enforcement has recorded less crime when a community cleans up trash and fixes broken windows. Small things matter. The little foxes spoil the vines, according to the Bible.
After the 1960’s Volkswagen had an ad with a souped-up bug painted with flames on its fenders. The words asked, “Is nothing sacred?” VW recognized that the culture was changing and traditional values were being abandoned. The coarsening of public discourse now on the campaign trail indicates the continuing abandonment of propriety and decency in our society. As Americans, we deserve better. As Christians, we should demand better.
“Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer” (Ps. 19:14).